The EMS Synthi 100: dialogues between invention, preservation and restoration

My research into the London-based studio and synthesizer manufacturer EMS adds to a growing body of research on early electronic music and, in particular, on the studios in which electronic music was composed and recorded during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. EMS, which was both a studio for researching and making computer music, and a company that made synthesizers and other devices as EMS (London) Ltd, illustrates in its different identities and competing concerns some of the factors that come into play when researching electronic music histories and the challenges that one faces when writing them.

In the course of my research I have been drawing on theoretical models not often associated with music, such as media theory and material culture, as well as reflecting on my own practice as a writer concerned with technologies of music and sound. The reconstruction of a historical musical device is of interest not only as a means of telling us more about the makers and users of that instrument, but also in encouraging us to draw parallels between processes of reconstruction, renovation, maintenance and so on, and the process of researching and writing the history of technological objects.

EMS London Ltd was established as a company in 1969 in order to sell the VCS3, the first European commercial portable synthesizer, which was developed by the founder of EMS, Peter Zinovieff, with engineer David Cockerell and composer and co-director of EMS, Tristram Cary.

The purpose of the company was primarily to generate funds to develop and maintain the studio that Peter Zinovieff had set up in his home in Putney, South West London. The studio was equipped with two PDP8 computers controlling analogue sound-making devices, forming a hybrid system for composing and realising music. The system was known as MUSYS (an acronym for ‘music system’), and was used by visiting composers including Hans Werner Henze and Harrison Birtwistle. Tristram Cary recalls that Knut Wiggen of EMS in Stockholm visited the London studio in 1970.

EMS’s position as a private computer-based studio combined with a synthesizer design and manufacturing operation makes it unique. It was neither solely a commercial synthesizer company, nor was it a purely research and composition based studio of the kinds being set up at the time by a universities and at national broadcaster. It was not affiliated with any public institution, but it was not unconnected to the public institutions of music and arts in the UK. For example Zinovieff and Cary were both active in championing the idea of a national studio for the country, while during the late 1960s they presented concerts at London’s Southbank Centre, aiming to raise the profile of electronic music in the UK.   

The synthesizers developed at EMS have a presence in a number of areas of musical life in the 1970s, in UK and Europe: the VCS3 and its variant the Synthi A in particular is connected to a number of different musical networks through its use in education, pop music, live electronic music and broadcast media.

The Synthi 100
Similarly, the Synthi 100 is connected to a wider culture of studio-based electronic composition and developments in electronic music practice and aesthetics. Looking at the history of the Synthi 100 prompts us to regard EMS the company and the EMS the studio as in fact more connected than the accounts given by its founders suggest, as its unique design, incorporating a digital sequencer and allowing the possibility of pairing the synthesizer with a computer, is directly informed by the activities of the EMS studio. The marketing of the Synthi 100 portrayed it not so much as an instrument but as a studio in itself: an entire working environment.

The Synthi 100 was initially intended to be a one-off commission; it was the success of the first two models led to more models being produced under the generic name Synthi 100. In 1970 EMS was commissioned by Paul Pignon to build a large synthesizer for the newly proposed electronic music studio at Radio Belgrade, in Yugoslavia. While still in progress it was shown to Desmond Briscoe of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and he ordered an identical machine to be built for the BBC. This was given the name The Delaware, after the road that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was situated in. This, installed in April 1971, was the first in operation. The Belgrade model was delivered in July 1971 and the Radio Belgrade studio became operational at the end of that year (Pignon, 1974).

All in all, 30 units were built before EMS ceased trading in 1979. Synthi 100s were installed in studios including the universities of Cardiff, Glasgow and East Anglia in the UK; European studios in Athens, Zurich, Bucharest and Moscow, and the studio of West Deutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, where it was used by Stockhausen for his composition Sirius. Outside of Europe, one was installed at Melbourne – where Tristram Cary emigrated in 1972 – and two in the US, one at Columbia Princeton, and one at Indiana University South Bend Electronic Studio.

The fates of these instruments have been varied. To use just the first two as examples, the one at the BBC was dismantled in the late 70s, with the sequencer part of it sold off separately to Cardiff University. The Belgrade model is still housed at Radio Belgrade, where a project is underway to restore it, led by artists Svetlana Maras and Jari Suominen. Suominen is a Finnish artist and musician who has worked on a number of similar restoration projects including the Synthi 100 at KSYME (Contemporary Music Research Centre) in Athens, which is currently on display as part of Documenta14. Paul Pignon, the composer and studio manager who commissioned the Belgrade Synthi and thus helped to develop the instrument, is acting as a consultant on its restoration.

This project follows a number of others, including the restoration of the Melbourne University Synthi 100 in 2015 by Leslie Craythorn, the chief technical officer of the university’s music school, who, like Pignon in Belgrade, had worked with the instrument when it first arrived in Melbourne in 1975. In 2016 Craythorn was given a prestigious Engineering Heritage Marker award for his restoration work.

The Synthi 100 at IPEM, Ghent
My interest in the restoration of the Synthi 100 was generated at first by a desire to find a working model that I could look at and interact with. This brought me to the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music in Ghent, where the last one to be made is still kept. 

This had been kept at IPEM under the guardianship of Ivan Scheppers, a technician who had worked there since the 1970s and had managed to prevent it being sold even when it fell into disuse. Since 2012 it had been being restored by an independent technician, Constantin Papagiorgadis, who had done most of the work for free as there was no funding from the University of Ghent for this work. Now, because of a renewed interest in analogue synthesizers and electronic music history, the instrument was experiencing a reinstatement within IPEM and the University as a whole, as well as being taken up by local musicians who are also synth enthusiasts. The Synthi 100 was displayed earlier this year at De Krook, a prestigious new science and art centre at the University of Ghent, in the context of IPEM’s current research into music cognition and embodiment: it was used with new interfaces developed at IPEM, which controlled the playing of a new piece by Ghent-based dance music producers Soulwax.

As I found out more about the IPEM Synthi and the people who had interacted with it over its existence, I was led to consider how the practices of maintaining, restoring and re-using the synthesizer move between different spaces, between the private and public, from the institutional to an area that is closer to the underground or subcultural, and then back again, subject to changes in the cultural and economic value placed upon the synthesizer, and I began to think about how each space requires or generates different vocabularies, intentions and types of knowledge.

Restoration and knowledge
Here we find expertise in physics, acoustics and electronic engineering co-exists with embodied knowledge practices, which are shared informally or collectively. Some of this could be defined as tacit knowledge – that is to say, ‘implicit knowledge, gained from practical experience’ and characterised by ‘deep understanding of materials and an ability to fix things by unconventional means’, to quote Susan Schmidt Horning’s study of recording engineers, ‘Engineering the Performance’. (Schmidt Horning 2004: 707)

I think here of the first users of the Synthi 100, at Radio Belgrade and in the BBC Radiophonics workshop, both of whom had to write their own manuals while learning to use the instrument because there was not yet a handbook for the synthesizer. According to Brian Hodgson, a studio manager at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the manual that he wrote with engineer David Cockerell grew into the official version (Niebur 2010; interview with author 2016). Here, we see tacit knowledge being formalized into explicit knowledge, which could then be used by other practitioners to develop their own knowledge of the instrument, which they might then choose to build upon in a different form. The process of restoration allows for another level to be added to this, because it gives the restorer access to not only the knowledge base that has grown around the use of the instrument but that which concerns its design and manufacture.

For Jari Suominen the hand-on process of restoration work is ‘fundamental for making observations about the design process and inner workings of the instrument’ (interview with author 2017). During restoration it is also possible to see how the instrument has been maintained, and what moderations and fixes were done over the years, which reframes the idea of restoration as part of an ongoing, if interrupted, process of fixing and upkeep, rather than one of resurrecting an obsolete technology. Here, perhaps, we can get a better sense of complex interplay between temporal, technological and cultural development in electronic music, which does not progress smoothly but through actions of both advance and delay.

Restoration, reconstruction and writing
In an essay titled ‘The Sound of Iron Age Music’, archaeologist and curator Fraser Hunter has written of how a reconstruction of an ancient musical instrument ‘has a physical presence that makes it seem seductive’. He writes, ‘it can readily become an archetype rather than a possibility’. (Hunter in Staubermann 2011: 57).

While the visual culture that has grown around vintage electronic instruments certainly attests to this risk, I want to propose that an encounter with the physical presence of a restored instrument that does not make a sound, just as much as one that is in working order, can, through the writing of that encounter, create a possibility; another form of sounding.

Shortly before I visited IPEM in Ghent last year, I interviewed Tom Carpenter, who has been carrying out the restoration of a Synthi 100 in his workshop. Carpenter, who is based near Birmingham, runs a company called Analogue Solutions where he produces new analogue synthesizers and modules. After purchasing the Synthi 100 in 2014, he has been restoring the instrument when he can afford the time; when I met him last year he about to make a sale of the instrument, which was then almost completed. He wished for the recipient to remain anonymous but told me it was for an institution rather than an individual collector.

When he acquired the Synthi 100 it had been disassembled, various parts had been boxed and the cabinet chopped up, which necessitated a new one being built. Some panels had to be remade, while others had to be reprinted and coated because they had become so worn.

The wiring work on the Synthi had not been finished when I visited Carpenter – he was planning to commission this to someone else – so our interaction with the instrument during the interview was mainly visual, with him showing me close details of its assembly as I recorded our conversation and contributed my own observations. This was an unexpectedly revealing way of approaching the instrument as it led us to discuss aspects of its design and manufacture quite separately from its musical capabilities or historical use in electronic music. These were of less concern than the present day challenges of making and fixing, the financial and time costs of such a project, and the wider issue of the increasing, escalating, economic value of historical analogue synthesizers.

Thus an economic and social dimension of synthesizer historiography came into play as we discussed these issues. The scale of the work that Carpenter had done so far, plus the outsourcing of some aspects of it, led us to talk about the fact that the instrument had originally been assembled not in a private workshop like Carpenter’s but in a factory. It is easy to forget, when you see the finished machine in archive photographs, posed with a composer or technician, the labour and, especially in the case of electronic assembly, gendered labour, that was involved in its construction.

The question of whether, in constructing EMS through my writing, I choose to explore or only briefly touch upon this aspect of its history brings to mind the questions that the restorer faces when they begin a project, such as: which elements of their project can be outsourced and which must be carried out in house? Which parts need to be exactly the same as the original and which could be replaced with a modern alternative? Above all, what is the project trying to do? Is the intention, as computing historian Doron Swade proposes in his writing on reconstructing historic computing machines, to create ‘fictitious antiques’ or ‘new primary sources’? Is the aim ‘operational rather than visual realism’, or a shifting relationship between the two? (Swade in Staubermann 2011: 106, 118) When is it, as Suominen proposes in our interview, more appropriate to use the term ‘renovation’, which indicates that the instrument is being maintained, rather than brought back to life: ‘I believe that the key function of instruments like Synthi is to be used, and when they are used, there is always something to fix,’ he says. ‘Maintaining stable or consistent operation always has the top priority.’

Doron Swade’s questions are intended to prompt the historian of science to consider why and how they wish to reconstruct, restore, replicate or simulate a historical technology; however, I think they are questions that are equally pertinent to the writer of histories of electronic sound and music.

An ongoing question for historians of science and technology as well as researchers of musical instruments is that of the relationship between the historical object and the practice associated with it.

This question is of particular interest to historians of electronic music and sound because the history of electronic music includes many instances of objects that have had multiple uses, for example the use of scientific testing equipment such as oscillators and filters in early electronic music studios, or the correspondence between computer analysis of sound and computer-based composition. While the analogue synthesizer is an instrument with a clearly defined musical purpose, its component parts – filters, oscillators and so on – are still recognizable from their scientific roots.

In their essay ‘Towards a New Organology’, John Tresch and Emily Dolan reflect upon the relationship between scientific and musical instruments, and propose

‘an analysis of instruments’ material configurations, social and institutional locations, degrees of freedom, and teleologies. This perspective makes it possible to trace the intersecting and at times divergent histories of science and music: their shared material practices, aesthetic commitments, and attitudes toward technology, as well as their impact on understandings of human agency’ (Tresch and Dolan 2013: 278)

Examining the process of electronic restoration makes possible this kind of analysis in a number of ways, from investigating the original design and schematics of the machine, to understanding the conditions of its assembly, to working with its original engineers and composers to build a picture of how it was made use of in different studio contexts – and, in replacing, improving or updating aspects of it now, understanding how an instrument can be said to have failed or to have become obsolete. Exploring restoration opens up new possibilities for the critical writer to engage materially with the musical-technological past and imagine the possible futures that were envisaged there.


Hunter, Fraser. (2011) “The sound of Iron Age music: Reconstructing the Deskford Carnyx”. In In Staubermann, K (ed) (2011) Reconstructions: recreating science and technology of the past Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland

Niebur, L. (2010) Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pignon, Paul (1974) “The Radio Belgrade electronic studio: Equipment, procedures, other information”. In Interface (now Journal of New Music Research) 3: 2. London: Taylor & Francis

Schmidt Horning, S. (2004) “Engineering the performance: recording engineers, tacit knowledge and the art of controlling sound”. In Social Studies of Science Vol. 34, No. 5: 703-731. Sage.

Swade, D (2011) “Historic computing machines’. In Staubermann, K (ed) (2011) Reconstructions: recreating science and technology of the past Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland

Tresch, J. and Dolan, E. (2013). ‘Toward a New Organology: Instruments of Music and Science’. In Osiris 28: 278–298

Interviews referenced
Brian Hodgson, November 2016
Paul Pignon, March 2017
Ivan Scheppers, August 2017
Jari Suominen, April 2017

Text by Frances Morgan, adapted from a presentation given at ‘CMRC and the EMS Synthi 100: Electronic Music from Greece and Sweden’ at documenta 14. Frances Morgan is a writer based in London. The former deputy editor of The Wire, she is currently carrying out PhD research on EMS at the Royal College of Art, in collaboration with the Science Museum, London.